Digital Fatalism; are we locked in?

24 April 2018

Jaron Lanier’s manifesto cum red scare paranoia You Are Not a Gadget (2010) challenges the structures and politics of “Web 2.0” era digital culture. Not all of the ideas in the book have aged well and some likely never made sense, but his examination of crystallisation of ideas through software representations is still relevant and its lessons are yet to be learned. In this post I want to look at Lanier’s analysis of software representation as philosophy and challenge his suggestion that these metaphors are “locked in”.

You Are Not a Gadget is written at an turning point in the history of the web; after the dot com bust and the emergence of web 2.0 but before Facebook executives had worked out how to monetise the platform. These years saw the waning of the personal home page as a defining unit of authorship on the web and the birth of the media prosumer and the social network. For Lanier, these developments represent a wrong turn in the digital revolution, one which threatens to reshape society and our notion of personhood. Particularly, Lanier takes aim at openness and anonymity on web platforms such as Wikipedia which, he suggests, mark a secession of individual identity to groupthink.

Lanier implicitly draws on entrenched archetypes of Eastern and Western culture in his critique. He blames the state of network culture on “digital Maoists” a group consisting of open source contributors, Creative Commons users, web 2.0 platforms, the Linux community, file sharers and remix culture.

Almost a decade on, it’s clear that social media and its Maoist counterparts have not brought about the end of individual identity. Indeed, culture appears more fractured than ever, we are more likely to criticise Facebook for creating divided echo chambers than pervasive groupthink. In answer to Lanier’s fears about anonymity, Snowden showed that we were never really anonymous in the first place. Against the apparently communist agenda of seemingly free and open user-generated content, tech companies like Facebook and Google have become capitalist behemoths, buying or crushing competition and turning over billions in profit.1

Of course, predicting the future is difficult and the text has much to offer aside from prescience. It is Lanier’s assertion that software has philosophical and social consequences that I want to focus on here. In chapter one he argues that the paradigms of present digital technology are not inevitable but emerged often arbitrarily as victors amongst many credible alternatives. This might seem like the exaggerations of radical postmodernism and indeed many programmers would deny any philosophical dimension to their work. But, as Lanier identifies, there also exists in computer science a “distinct tradition” that thinks deeply about the consequences of its labour and which might be called “humanistic”. Tim Berners-Lee around the same time the manifesto was written began describing the design of web protocols as “philosophical engineering”. In an informal video interview posted to DailyMotion he said; “It struck me that when we are designing web protocols we’re actually defining the way a new world works and creating a new world… so people, when they use your system, to a certain extent, they have to leave their philosophy at the door… and they have to [agree to] work according to your system. So you can build systems, worlds which have different properties.”2 For Lanier, the properties of Berner-Lee’s web are radical freedom and openness whose initial conditions have led to the dominant culture.

His argument appears at first glance to follow a common pattern of humanistic research, which might be called deconstruction.3 Take a ubiquitous and unexamined contemporary idea/institution/system. Recontextualise it within the history of ideas from which it emerged. Show how this context shaped its development and examine contemporaneous alternative ideas that might have created alternative presents. In short, show the idea to be constructed and contingent so it may be reopened for development. Only, Lanier takes a fatalistic turn with his concept of lock-in. Software, he argues, cannot be fixed. As it grows in size it becomes a “cruel maze”; extremely difficult to modify. As such, large programs tend to crystallise, and most concerningly so do their representations of the world.

In the book’s first introduced example of lock-in, Lanier recounts the history of the MIDI protocol. MIDI, he claims, represents music from the keyboardist’s perspective; as a set of discrete “key-up” “key-down” signals. The very structure of MIDI locks the user into “the tile mosaic world of the keyboardist”, and out of “the watercolor world of the violin”. Here, I agree with Lanier; MIDI like other software representations, is a conceptual as well as technical system, it facilitates thought but also forces users into certain ways of thinking.

According to Lanier, “before MIDI, a musical note was a bottomless idea that transcended absolute definition.” This is where we diverge. Software is far from the only form of representation to shape thought or to encode a singular view of the world. Before MIDI, and alongside it, another dominant representation framed the expression of music. Modern staff notation encodes a rigid notion of pitch and time that enables clear communication between composers, musicians and nowadays machines, but inevitably frames music and creates conceptual boundaries. The stave discretises pitch and assumes western tuning. The very structure of staff notation forces the user into a western musical perspective. It cannot represent the swaying quarter tones of the oud or the continuous paths of the theremin.

"Piano piece for David Tudor 4" — La Monte Young

Modern staff notation’s representation of music is pervasive but not totalising. Beginning in the 1950s, composers such as John Cage have experimented with non-standard or graphic music manuscripts (see Notations (1969) for more examples). These notations often reference aspects of the standard notation but employ textural and/or continuous representations of pitch and time. In the humanistic tradition, these manuscripts are informed by western music notation but escape its rigidity. They challenge the strictures of standard notation and offer alternative ways of representing music.

Can we do the same for software representations? or; is there a substantive difference between software representations and graphical or other representations which makes them more susceptible to lock-in?

On one hand, it seems there is. Non-digital music need not pass through notation; the unscripted, extempore style of (most) jazz musicians is evidence of this. Digital instruments on the other hand, must funnel their very performance through a software representation and this is almost always MIDI. MIDI has proven extremely resilient to proposed alternatives and the more instruments, musicians and composition programs that support it the less likely it appears to be overthrown.

With this in mind, it is easy to feel fatalistic about the state of software. But the other examples of lock-in in You Are Not a Gadget tell a different story. Lanier suggests hyperbolically that the software notion of the file will likely outlive current notions of nature or the concept of the photon. “The file is a set of philosophical ideas made into eternal flesh.” In contrast, we are already seeing the waning of the file representation in computing. Though files remain dominant in desktop computing, smart phones rarely include a file explorer by default and apps are likely to organise data for the user rather than being tools for the user to manipulate files. In another example, Lanier cites the UNIX operating system’s representation of software around discrete typing events “as if reality were a network of fast typists.” This has detrimental consequences for timing making UNIX “too brittle and clumsy” for making music. But although UNIX lives on there are many successful software representations that are used for making music. Live-coding is a broad church which thinks deeply about software representations of time and music.

In the end, what appears to be lock-in is simply the failure that marks the entire book, an inability to see outside the present. Current technologies, institutions and paradigms seem inescapable, but an alternative, even to MIDI, might be just beyond the horizon. Lanier’s great achievement is to bring to the collective consciousness the power of software representations in shaping thought. We need tech humanists to help make sense of software historically and socially, to develop a critical tradition in software and to reopen software paradigms for development. Digital fatalism we can do without.


  1. There’s a moment recorded in a live conversation between Lanier and James Bridle at the School of Life in London, where Bridle pushes back on Lanier’s proposed solutions to technology; “Aren’t those approaches exactly what will be impossible in a more pervasive technological system like the one that you propose as the next step for freedom in this? If everything that we do, if every action, if every contribution is tracked, monitored, surveilled and and put in a capitalist framework of reward, doesn’t that approach of cutting yourself off become completely impossible?” 

  2. “Tim Berners-Lee on PhiloWeb and Philosophical engineering”. DailyMotion. 

  3. David B. Allison, introduction to Speech and Phenomena defines deconstruction as “a project of critical thought whose task is to locate and ‘take apart’ those concepts which serve as the axioms or rules for a period of thought, those concepts which command the unfolding of an entire epoch of metaphysics.” (p. xxxiii) 

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